Amarnath Yatra: An environmental disaster in the making

Srinagar, Aug.8 (ANI): The Amarnath Shiv Lingam has melted once again, ten days before the yatra has ended officially. No one should be surprised or shocked. For the amount of pressure that the shrine board puts on the cave, it's a miracle the lingam lasted this long.

Consider the numbers. This year has seen the highest number of devotees visiting Amarnath. n astounding six lakh people have entered the holy cave in less than a month. That works out to about 13 yatris entering and leaving the cave every minute, twenty four hours a day, 30 days a month, non stop.

Given that the holy cave is open for darshan for only about 12 hours a day, the actual pressure on the Holy shrine are far higher. One fails to understand why the number of devotes to the holy shrine isn't regulated to more manageable levels, to improve the over all experience for the pilgrims and reduce the massive carbon foot print of the annual pilgrimage.

Such is the scale of the yatra, that at it's peak, the two base camps at Tangmarg and Pahalgam, look like squalid refugee camps with thousands of tents pitched across miles of once green meadows.

The gigantic numbers directly reflect on the facilities provided to the yatries. There's a lack of toilets and a lot of pilgrims end up relieving themselves into the rivers passing by the base camps.

Furthermore a lack of a proper waste disposal system in both the camps and along the routes to the cave means that the whole area is littered with plastic bottles, wrappers and other non-biodegradable pollutants, much longer after the yatra is over.

The sensitive ecologies of the Tangmarg and Pahalgam valley systems take much of the pollution onslaught year after year, without repair or rescue. This onslaught was documented in a 37-page report released by The Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board (JKSPCB) in 2006.

The report expressed concern over not regulating the yatra in a manner that protects the environment. It specifically pointed out that the situation in Pahalgam, the main base camp of the yatra, was alarming and called for immediate measures to protect the sensitive ecology of the Pahalgam valley.

Instead of acting on the recommendations and reducing the number of pilgrims to the Holy cave, the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, the administrative body overseeing the yatra, responded with increasing the number of pilgrims to the cave, not only endangering the ecology but also endangering the Holy cave itself.

The environmental apathy of the shrine board shines through. Such is the callousness of the Shrine Board that, when on July 22nd, the Shrine Board set up a Sub-Committee to advise the board regarding the duration and schedule of the Yatra from 2012 onwards, not even a single environmentalist was nominated to the six member committee that will be chaired by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The board in pursuing its single point agenda of increasing the scale of the yatra seems to be completely ignoring the environmental cost of the mammoth exercise to the sensitive ecology that enables the journey, or the religious sentiments of the pilgrims that undertake this arduous pilgrimage. In a major scandal in 2006, the shrine board was alleged to have planted a fake lingam in the cave after the stalagmite had completely melted away.

The government also has played a part in converting the holy pilgrimage into an environmental disaster. In the absence of clear Government guidelines on the number of pilgrims that the twin route can sustain, the board has been consistently pushing up the number of pilgrims that can make the pilgrimage, escalating the damage to the two ecologically sensitive routes.

The government hasn't even bothered to conduct a proper scientific survey of the two routes to assess the annual carrying capacity the Lidder and Tangmarg ecosystems that would serve as reliable and scientific indicators towards arriving at a safe annual pilgrim number.

The state government is guilty of not taking a strong environmental position on the issue for fear of a right wing political back lash. While there is quiet recognition of the sad fact that such recklessness will eventually lead to irreparable harm to the Holy cave and its surrounding ecology, there is little reflection of that anguish in terms of policy willingness to prevent the damage in time.

Right wing groups politicise the Yatra to an extent that they see it as a point scoring system in the larger Kashmir issue narrative. Several langars (community kitchens) along the yatra route in fact play audio CD's that exhort the pilgrims to take back 'Mother Kashmir from the invaders' and 'reclaim the Kashmiri territory into the Indian fold!' While there is no clarity about the source of such propaganda, there is no confusing the extreme right wing tone and tenor of the message.ven as the Shrine Board, instituted to further the cause of the yatra, has ended up as an instrument of appeasement to these right wing groups, the state government is unwilling to step on any toes in a political environment that is charged with religious overtones.

The holy cave, the pilgrims that throng it and the ecology that makes the yatra possible sustain the protracted damage of the politicking. By Raheel Khursheed (ANI)

Attn: News Editors/News Desks: The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr.Raheel Khursheed, an independent journalist and communications consultant.